by Witold Gombrowicz
Look at the various identities assumed.
Student of law in Warsaw. Young intellectual
in Paris.   Bank clerk in Buenos Aires. Exile
in Berlin.  Respected author in the south of
France.  In a different
age, Witold Gombrowicz
might have enjoyed the
privileged life of the scion
of a wealthy Polish family.
Yet Polish life during the
middle decades of the 20th
Century was not conducive
to such ambitions. Gom-
browicz would instead earn
his place in Polish literary
history by writing works banned by Nazis
and suppressed by the Communists. His
decision to wait out World War II in
Argentina turned into a quarter-of-a-century
sojourn, and his return to Europe was
marked by a campaign of slurs and
denunciations orchestrated by Polish
authorities and the censorship of his works
in his native country.  But Gombrowicz
responded to the ban with
one of his one—his last will specified that
none of his works could be published in his
homeland unless his entire oeuvre was made
available.  Some two decades after his death
from a heart attack, in 1969 at age 64, his
books—widely known in underground
editions and copies smuggled from other
countries—were finally released in official
versions in Poland. Completing this
turnaround, the Ministry of Culture of the
Polish government declared that 2004, the
his centenary of his birth, would be the "year of
Essay by Ted Gioia

The search for clues, and their interpretation—
the piecemeal reconstruction of the crime from
the accumulated evidence—are the most basic
building blocks of the mystery genre.   But what
happens if
everything looks like a clue?  What if the
difference blurs between evidence and the random
entropy of day-to-day life?   What if even the crime
itself seems arbitrary or undefined, a non-descript,
anomalous circumstance beyond the interest of any
legal authorities?

These are the deliberately banal in-
gredients that Witold Gombrowicz
combines in his 1965 novel
The story is presented through the
perspective of a young man, also
named Witold, who has taken up
temporary lodging as a border in a
countryside home, sharing a room
with his melancholy companion
Fuchs.  Both are escaping an un-
pleasant situation in the city—
Witold running away from an unspecified family dispute
in Warsaw, and Fuchs seeking a vacation from his boss
Drozdowski and the mutual loathing that characterizes
his relationship with his superior.

Shortly before their arrival, the two travelers come
across a disturbing sight—a sparrow hanging on a bit
of wire from a tree branch.  It’s far from clear that
any law has been broken—the scenario is not dissimilar
to the pet murder Mark Haddon’s presents at the center
of his
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
—but sometimes the investigation of a peculiar
non-crime leads to unexpected discoveries of a far
more dramatic nature.   In this instance, our two
protagonists are haunted by the scene, and in the
ensuing days they consider the possible causes and
implications of the bird lynching.

They have little or no evidence to guide them. But both
betray a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive
behavior, and soon they are perceiving potential clues
everywhere they look.  They see a mark on the ceiling
of their room that might be in the shape of an arrow—
perhaps placed there intentionally to assist them in
their investigations. Why not? Following the
direction indicated by the arrow, they travel from
their room to the hall and, eventually, outside, where
they discover a piece of wood hanging from a piece of
thread in a niche in the garden wall. The connection
with the sparrow is vague and hypothetical, at best a
weak analogy between two things suspended
unexpectedly in out-of-the-way places. But our
protagonists believe they may be unlocking some
grand mystery.  

Yet, in their zeal to uncover the truth, our obsessed  
investigators create more problems than they resolve.
Our narrator is soon peering into a housemate’s
window, searching a servant’s room on the flimsiest
pretext, killing a pet, asking leading questions and, in
general, meddling in everything that comes his way. In
the warped mind of our protagonist, everything is
connected to everything else, and even the smallest
details—a facial expression, the idle movement of
someone’s fingers on the dinner table, a hummed
melody—are seen as somehow complicit in a growing
web of nebulous proportions.

Reading Gombrowicz’s tale, I was reminded of my
earliest days as a writer, working for the student
newspaper at my high school.  One of my classmates,
looking for a story to cover, set fire to the rubbish
in a trash can, then took photos, wrote up an account,
and ran his “scoop” in the weekly edition. I can’t recall
the aftermath, but I suspect a teacher or other authority
figure pointed out the difference, perhaps unclear in my
colleague’s mind, between
covering the news and creating
the news.   When you try to do both at once, you have
hopelessly compromised your situation, and do neither
effectively.  A similar muddling of concepts has infected
the protagonists in Gombrowicz’s
Cosmos. They are so
anxious to have a mystery to solve, that they are forced
to create it themselves, albeit unwittingly—and in the
process become what is known as, in the parlance of the
constabulary, the

This is an unusual scenario, but not without precedents
in fiction.  Jorge Luis Borges, in his story "Death and the
Compass," has described a series of murders that are,
in a very real sense, created by the inquiry that seeks to
solve them.   If the investigator had taken a different
approach, the crimes would have happened differently.
In the detective story genre, this reversal of cause and
effect is rare enough, but in real life our mental
categories obviously dictate,
a priori, some apparently
"given" elements of the world that we experience. I
tend to be skeptical of glib assertions of the
construction of reality
(to borrow a once fashionable
term)—the kernel of wisdom here is often pushed
too far—yet it is just as dangerous to assume that we
are passive spectators at the pageant of our day-to-day
lives, viewing the proceedings as in a theater where our
preconceptions and mental constructs, individual or
collective, hold no constitutive power.  Gombrowicz’s
gambit is to push further than the rest of us, and see
whether the same conceptual framework can handle,
in story form, matters of life and death.  

"I gladly call this work 'a novel about a reality that is
creating itself,'" Witold Gombrowicz has commented.
"And because a detective novel is precisely this—an
attempt at organizing chaos—
Cosmos has a little of the
form of a detective romance." But this is not your
typical whodunit.  A disturbing, almost claustrophobic
quality pervades the work, and many readers will be
deterred by the sheer tedium which ensues when
arbitrary details take on such a central role in a novel.
Yet Gombrowicz succeeds in showing, albeit in an
exaggerated, almost parodistic manner, a truth that may
elude us in more conventional narratives—namely that
our zeal to systematize, organize, and impose meaning
on events can drive the course of any story, whether
on the page or in real life.  In
Cosmos, he simply takes
that rule to its most extreme, paradoxical implication
—shocking us with the discovery that even idle
observers can construct the crime by the very intensity
of their scrutiny.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest
book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Click on image to purchase

Further Clues:

"The Plotlessness Thickens," a Review of Cosmos by
Neil Gordon from the The New York Times

"Gombrowicz or the Sadness of Form" by Ricardo

Witold Gombrowicz Archive at Yale University
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